Far-away Feature : London

Over this past summer, I had the opportunity to spend some time on my own in London. While I personally think that traveling is probably more fun when one has other people to share the experience with, I did get to partake in an admittedly self-indulgent tour around the city, looking for places that I felt captured the spirit of cafés and restaurants around the area.

After visiting about a dozen places in under a week, I found that this city, a place primarily known in the culinary world for tea and lackluster food, had a surprisingly wide range of interesting flavors and approaches to explore. I suppose that as the signs so commonly say, the best way to reflect after such a compressed experience is to keep calm, and carry on.

I’ve heard stories about how British hipsters love coffee for the sole reason that it is not tea – something different from the “common” hot beverage of choice but also still incredibly nuanced and involved in its selection and preparation. In my conversations, I found that these interests need not be mutually exclusive – one can appreciate coffee while still enjoying a traditional high tea, as one big, happy caffeinated family of a lifestyle.

Here, patrons actually took the time to sit down and drink their beverages with the dignity and consideration they deserved.

In the cafés that I visited, I felt a generally slower tempo across the board. Here, patrons would actually take the time to sit down and drink their beverages with the dignity and consideration they deserved. (Indeed, getting a cup to go actually incurred additional costs in some places!) It was a welcome change to the sadness that is a barista’s lovingly-made latte artwork flower being crushed by a plastic lid after one sip. (I’m guilty of this myself. In the US, it’s so common to just grab and gulp our coffee. Perhaps not so much there.)

Thematically, many cafés weren’t all that different from the ones I’ve seen here – places like Notes and Timberyard had modern clean white interiors and geometric accents, while others such as Sacred Café or FoxCroft & Ginger elected to fill their interiors with more busy looking ducts and pipework furniture. That said, the individual personality of each store still shone through –

Less restrained by real estate limitations compared to New York City, the spaces in London are absolutely breathtaking and fill every inch (or is it centimeter?) with personality, presence, and ambiance. Even the chain or franchise cafés seemed exhibit a bit more character than the alarmingly identical interiors of a certain green siren-logo’d coffee chain that will remain nameless. All in all, it was a wonderful experience.

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I saw a culinary thoughtfulness that I had thought was unique to, say, New York City, or Los Angeles, or Paris.

I was surprised to find that contrary to pretty much every stereotype that I’ve heard that states the opposite, my experience with British food carried many of the same philosophies as I saw with their drinks. There wasn’t just boiled nonsense and fish and chips (though there was indeed plenty of those to be seen) – I saw  a culinary thoughtfulness that I had thought was unique to, say, New York City, or Los Angeles, or Paris. Sometimes you do very little and let the ingredients subtly speak for themselves. Sometimes you stick to tradition and produce a rich, meaty pie. And then sometimes, you go whole-hog crazy whimisical, and make something like a deep fried chicken-skin chicharrón/chip thing to serve with a single goblet of beer:

No really. It was awesome. (In a bizarre twist of fate, their “super exotic import beer” of the day? Brooklyn Brewery.)

Of course, if one is talking about high-end food in London, I would be remiss not to mention the crazy wonder that is Borough Market, located right by London Bridge and the Shard along the River Thames. Historically one of London’s largest and oldest markets, its refurbishing in the early 2000’s has created an extremely popular culinary wonderland of fresh and prepared foods alike. It was like the Farmer Markets at Union Square, multiplied by a hundred. Certainly an experience to behold if you like to eat food (so basically, everyone ever.)

My takeaway from eating my way across the middle of this city for a week? I need to go back. With more friends and more space in my stomach. I hope you all find the chance to as well.